A Celebration of Women Writers

"Marguerite de Roberval" by Isabel Ecclestone Mackay (1875-1928)
In Garvin, John William, ed. Canadian Poets. Toronto, Canada: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Publishers, 1916. pp. 240-243.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

Marguerite de Roberval

O THE long days and nights ! The days that bring
No sunshine that my shrinking soul can bear,
The nights that soothe not. All the airs of France,
Soft and sun-steeped, that once were breath of life,
Now stir no magic in me. I could weep–
Yet can I never weep–to see the land
That is my land no more ! For where the soul
Doth dwell and the heart linger, there
Alone can be the native land, and I have left

[Page 241]

Behind me one small spot of barren earth
That is my hold on heav'n !

                 You bid me tell
My story? That were hard. I have no art
And all my words have long been lost amid
The greater silences. The birds–they knew
My grief, nor did I feel the need of speech
To make my woe articulate to the wind!
If my tale halts, know 'tis the want of words
And not the want of truth.

                 'Twas long, you say?
Yes, yet at first it seemed not long. We watched
The ship recede, nor vexed them with a prayer.
Was not his arm about me? Did he not
Stoop low to whisper in my tingling ear ?
The little Demon-island was our world,
So all the world was ours–no brighter sphere
That swung into our ken in purple heaven
Was half so fair a world ! We were content.
Was he not mine? And I (he whispered this)
The only woman on love's continent !
How can I tell my story? Would you care
To hear of those first days? I cannot speak
Of them–they lie asleep so soft within
My heart a word would wake them ? I'll not speak that word!

                 There came at last a golden day
When in my arms I held mine own first-born,
And my new world held three. And then I knew,
Mid joy so great, a passion of despair!
I knew our isle was barren, girt with foam
And torn with awful storm. I knew the cold,
The bitter, cruel cold! My tender babe,
What love could keep him warm? Beside my couch
Pale famine knelt with outstretched, greedy hand,
To snatch my treasure from me. Ah, I knew,
I knew what fear was then!

                 We fought it back,
That ghost of chill despair. He whom I loved

[Page 242]

Fought bravely, as a man must fight who sees
His wife and child defenceless. But I knew–
E'en from the first–the unequal strife would prove
Too long, the fear too keen! It wore his strength
And in his eyes there grew the look of one
Who grapples time, and will not let it go,
Yet feels it slipping, slipping–

                 Ah, my dear!
I saw you die, and could not help or save–
Knowing myself to be the awful care
That weighed thee to thy grave!

                 The world held two
Now–one so frail and small, and one made strong
By love and weak by fear. That little life!
It trembled in my arms like some small flame
Of candle in a stealthy draught that blows
And blows again–one never knows from whence,
Yet feareth always– till at last, at last,
A darkness falls ! So came the dark to me–
And it was night indeed!

                 Beside my love
I laid my lovely babe. And all fear fled;
For where joy is there only can fear be.
They fear not who have nothing left to fear!

. . . . .

So that is all my tale. I lived, I live
And shall live on, no doubt. The changeful sky
Is blue in France, and I am young–think you
I am still young ! Though joy has come and passed
And I am gazing after with dull eyes!

One day there came a sail. It drew near
And found me on my island, all alone–
That island that had once held all the world–
They succoured me and bought me back again
To sunny France, and here I falter through
This halting tale of mine. And now 'tis told
I pray you speak of it no more !

If I would sleep o' nights my ears must close
To that sad sound of waves upon the beach,

[Page 243]

To that sad sound of wind that waileth so!
To visions of the sun upon the sea
And green, grass-covered mounds, bleak, bleak, but still
With early flowers clustering here and there!

[When the Sieur de Roberval, appointed Viceroy of Canada by Francis I., sailed for his new possessions, he took with him his niece, the lovely and high-spirited Marguerite de Roberval. A cavalier of Picardy, who loved her, but was too poor to ask her hand in marriage, joined the company as a volunteer, but on the voyage out the affection of the young people was discovered by de Roberval, who was so enraged that he devised a terrible punishment. Near Newfoundland was a solitary island, called the Isle of Demons, because of the strange wailings of the wind over the rocks, and here Marguerite was abandoned. Her lover, however, succeeded in escaping his guards, and swam to shore. They built such shelter as they could, and this is the first European family home of which we know in Canada. After some years Marguerite was rescued by a fishing boat and restored to France, but not until both husband and child were dead. The poem contains her story, told by herself, upon her arrival in France.– Author's Note.]


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom